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Looking up content for: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 (posted on April 2, 2012)
Author: Doug Bratt
Associated tags: Year B, The Lectionary Psalms, The Lectionary Psalms
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Since this is the Lectionary-appointed psalm for Easter Sunday, it’s fairly easy to view it through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection. After all, it’s the kind of song Jesus could have sung after God raised him from the dead. What’s more, rabbinic tradition suggests that Israelites sang Psalm 118 at their Passover meal. So Jesus may well have sung it with his disciples at the end of their meal as they prepared to go to the Mount of Olives.
It may also be tempting to view Psalm 118 through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection because it’s, candidly, not a particularly easy psalm to preach all by itself. It contains imagery, such as apparent temple liturgy language in verses 19-21, that’s both unfamiliar and challenging to apply to a modern walk of faith. What’s more, Psalm 118 seems to contain a lot of apparently disjointed points that lend themselves more easily to focus on a single verse rather than on a psalm-wide theme. On top of that, it’s not easy to know whether this is the song of thanksgiving of an Israelite king celebrating a victory, Israel celebrating God’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery, post-exile Jews celebrating their return from exile or something else.
Yet with the Holy Spirit’s guidance and some careful thought and work, Psalm 118 can be a fertile text for preaching and teaching all by itself. It’s certainly the kind of psalm to which those who have known both duress and God’s gracious deliverance from it are attracted. The Martin Luther who was persecuted for his understanding of the Christian faith, for example, referred to it as “his own beloved psalm” and interpreted it as speaking directly to his situation.
Of course, Luther’s claiming of Psalm 118 as his own makes interpreters nervous. After all, the psalmist leaves both her identity and the crisis from which God rescues her unidentified. As James L. Mays notes, the poet didn’t write this psalm to answer “specific historic questions.” Instead she concentrates on God’s mighty work to rescue her. The psalmist sees her identity centrally as one who “comes in the name of the Lord.” (26) This makes this psalm one to which all of God’s sons and daughters can relate.
The psalmist both begins and ends 118 with his call to “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” In fact, he makes giving thanks to God a very central theme of Psalm 118. In verse 19 he announces that “I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.” And in verse 21 the psalmist insists, “I will give you thanks, for you answered me.” That thanksgiving also has a communal aspect. After all, in verses 2-4 he calls Israel three times to join him in saying, “God’s love endures forever.” After all, in contrast to human love that is naturally feeble and conditional, God’s love endures.
The psalmist also adds a communal element to the call to thanks in verse 23 when she shifts the narrative voice of the psalm from the first person singular to the first person plural, calling, in verse 25, for example, “O Lord, save us; O Lord, grant us success.” So while the psalmist is speaking of and thanking God for God’s liberation of her from some sort of danger, she also calls the worshiping community to join her in such worship and thanksgiving.
Certainly God has given both the psalmist and the community many reasons to give thanks to God. After all, God is “good.” God’s “love endures forever.” God is the psalmist’s “strength and song.” What’s more, echoing Exodus 15’s song of victory on the Red Sea’s far shore, the psalmist asserts that God has become his “salvation.” God has “answered” the psalmist. The psalmist also speaks of God’s “right hand” three times, describing it as having done “mighty things” and being “lifted high.” Reference to God’s “right hand” seems to be another way of saying that God has graciously and personally intervened in the life of the psalmist.
God has brought the psalmist to a place where she can express deep confidence in God’s goodness. After all, prophets like Amos, Ezekiel and Hosea had announced that Israel’s sin would result in her death as part of God’s judgment. Yet the psalmist says that God did not abandon her (and, by implication, Israel) to death. While death is part of life on this side of the new creation’s curtain, death does not have the last word for the psalmist, Israel or those whom God has made “righteous.” This, of course, takes on new meaning in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Through it God has transformed the death of God’s sons and daughters into a transition into God’s eternal presence where we await our own resurrection at Christ’s return. Even though we die, we will, by God’s amazing grace, live.
Among perhaps the most difficult imagery of Psalm 118 is that of verses 19-21. It appears to be temple imagery, signaling, perhaps, that it’s part of some kind of thanksgiving liturgy for use in the temple. The psalmist asks that its “gates” be opened so that he may give thanks to the Lord. After all, he wants to be able to give thanks, perhaps in some kind of worship service, for answering him and becoming his salvation. Even the language of “the stone that the builders rejected” becoming “the capstone,” that Jesus, Paul and Peter take to refer to Jesus, may be temple imagery.
To close the section on which the Lectionary specifically focuses, the psalmist calls the worshiping community to join him in rejoicing and being glad in the day that the Lord has made. Since the psalmist doesn’t specify to what day he refers, it’s a wonderful summary of God’s children’s approach to each and every day God graciously gives us. We can rejoice, because God has made this day.
Psalm 118 offers preachers and teachers a wonderful opportunity to reflect and invite hearers to consider what God has done for us. However, it also presents a challenge to those whom God has helped to talk about their experiences of God’s work. After all, the psalmist isn’t just thankful to God for being his strength and song. He also finds ways to talk about that goodness in Psalm 118. While some Christians are naturally reticent about talking about what God has done for them, this psalmist reminds us that we shouldn’t encounter and experience God’s mercy and then refuse to talk about it.